Middle Israel: Avigdor Liberman, Poor man’s Churchill

Avigdor Liberman’s departure is not about his views, but about his unsuitability for the position he should not have assumed.

Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Avigdor Liberman
Political resignations come in three flavors: failure, discord, and scandal.
Scandal felled illustrious careers, from Richard Nixon’s in 1974 to Ehud Olmert’s in 2008, not to mention John Profumo’s in 1963, following revelations that the British war secretary and a Soviet naval attaché visited the same prostitute’s bed.
Failure also sparked tragic resignations, like Anthony Eden’s in 1956, following his failure to wrest the Suez Canal from Egypt, or Charles de Gaulle’s in 1969, following his defeat in a referendum.
There was no such context to departing Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s resounding resignation this week. Scandal, the trial from which he emerged legally clean and politically emboldened, is in this case prehistoric. And failure, as far as Liberman is concerned, is anyone’s but his.
That attitude is in keeping with Israeli tradition, where there is no equivalent to, say, Lord Peter Carrington’s resignation as British foreign secretary in 1982, following Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands, which he saw as a British diplomatic failure and therefore his responsibility.
In Israel the time-honored political tradition is to cling to office even in the face of the most glaring responsibility for the most damning debacle, like Moshe Dayan’s for the Yom Kippur War, or Ariel Sharon’s for the First Lebanon War.
The resignations that did happen here – beside those that resulted from exhaustion, like David Ben-Gurion’s in 1954 and Menachem Begin’s in 1983 – stemmed from policy disputes.
Yigael Yadin, for instance, quit as IDF chief of staff in 1952 in protest of a budget cut; Dayan quit as foreign minister in 1979 because he concluded Begin wouldn’t deliver Palestinians autonomy; Moshe Arens resigned as defense minister in 1987 in protest of the Lavi fighter-plane project’s cancellation; and Benjamin Netanyahu resigned as finance minister in 2005 in protest of the planned withdrawal from Gaza.
It is this kind of resignation that Liberman wants us to believe he has just staged, a dignified departure like Robin Cook’s in 2003 as leader of the House of Commons, which came wrapped in a scathing oration against his country’s invasion of Iraq, of which he said “the reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner – not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council,” as the MPs responded with an unprecedented, spontaneous, multi-partisan ovation.
Liberman’s cause is, of course, the inversion of Cook’s – Cook opposed war, Liberman opposed ceasefire. Yet according to his resignation speech, his, too, is a principled oracle’s respectable departure, an unsung Churchill’s defiance of appeasement’s gullible cooks.
It isn’t.
FROM THE standpoint of his views on Hamas, Liberman was indeed supposed to resign.
It is inconceivable that a prime minister and defense minister not see eye to eye on key strategic issues. It is altogether intolerable that they disagree publicly, as Liberman and Netanyahu did concerning the fighting in Gaza.
Moreover, there was nothing illegitimate in Liberman’s general aims in Gaza. He wasn’t the only one who wanted tougher action; he was joined in this quest by millions of Israelis, including the Labor Party.
Yet here lies the first problem with Liberman’s resignation: unlike Carrington, who could not predict even in his wildest dreams Argentina’s invasion of Her Majesty’s realm, Liberman knew full well when he assumed his position that Netanyahu, unlike Liberman, did not think Hamas should be eradicated. That – among other reasons – is why Liberman fielded his own party.
Netanyahu apparently thinks it’s better to have Gaza controlled by the universally reviled Hamas than by the internationally legitimate but politically abrasive Mahmoud Abbas.
This is, of course, a very debatable aim, and also one that Netanyahu will never publicly admit, but it is the explanation for what Liberman decried in his resignation speech as “weakness” and “long-term damage,” referring to this week’s ceasefire and to the Qatari financial infusions Israel allowed before it.
Yes, Liberman could not have predicted the timing, length and exact details of Israel’s umpteenth clash with Hamas, but he should have known that the man who made him defense minister does not share his vision of annihilating Hamas.
Middle Israelis can therefore not accord Liberman the respect he expects as someone who, as he put it Wednesday, “preferred principle over office.” The time to prefer principle over office was back when he accepted an appointment he could not accept in good faith, considering his disagreement with Netanyahu on the basic strategic issue of what to do with Hamas.
This is besides the fact that everyone agrees that sooner or later Hamas will have to be confronted, meaning that Liberman is no great visionary on this front. Having said this, Liberman’s ineligibility as defense minister stemmed not only from his strategic views but also from his political situation.
ISRAELI REALITY demands that the civilian atop the military should enjoy its respect. Liberman won that respect personally but not politically.
The generals knew he didn’t call the shots, because unlike defense ministers who represented major parties, his was a marginal faction representing hardly 5% of the public. Liberman didn’t represent the citizenry, and the generals knew that.
Add to that Liberman’s lack of expertise in specific defense issues, of the sort possessed by civilian defense ministers such as Shimon Peres, Moshe Arens and Levi Eshkol, and you get a devalued defense minister whose anti-Hamas bravados lacked professional expertise and political sway. That, no less than his views, marginalized Liberman in secret forums.
Liberman’s frustration therefore ran deeper than his farewell speech suggested, and in fact exposed the truth about his entire political career.
Forfeiting life in the ruling party, where he originally grazed, for life in its orbit, where he has been floating for the past 20 years, can be good for a politician’s freedom, ego and vainglory, provided he understands the limitations that life beyond gravity entails.